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Sisu Meaning: Unraveling the
Finnish Spirit of Perseverance

David Webb (Owner, writer & host of All-About-Psychology.Com)

Person displaying sisu, the Finnish cultural concept that symbolizes determination, resilience, courage, and perseverance in the face of adversity or challenging circumstances.

Sisu is a Finnish word that represents a unique concept, often considered one of the core cultural characteristics of Finland. It is a quality or trait that refers to extraordinary determination, resilience, courage, and perseverance in the face of adversity or challenging circumstances.

The term "sisu" doesn't have an exact English equivalent, but it embodies the idea of having inner strength, guts, and fortitude to keep pushing forward even when the odds seem insurmountable. It's a quality that enables individuals to maintain a positive attitude and take action despite overwhelming obstacles.

Sisu is deeply ingrained in the Finnish culture and has historical significance, especially during challenging times like wars or harsh weather conditions. It has been considered one of the reasons behind the resilience and success of the Finnish people, both as individuals and as a nation.

Sisu holds a profound and almost mystical significance for the Finnish people. Rather than a display of momentary courage, sisu embodies the ability to sustain courage over time. Capturing the essence of Finnish identity and character, Sisu epitomizes the philosophy of accomplishing what needs to be done, regardless of the sacrifices involved.

This inherent characteristic of the Finnish people can be likened to attributes like backbone, stamina, guts, and unwavering perseverance. It goes beyond mere hardship and encompasses a sense of integrity that leads to successful outcomes.

Finns demonstrate sisu by bouncing back from failures, learning from them, and displaying unyielding willpower. This indomitable spirit is exemplified in various aspects of Finnish culture: for instance, Finland has sisu brand cars and sisu armored vehicles. Mount Sisu, a mountain conquered by Finnish mountain climber Veikka Gustafsson in the Antarctic, further represents the endurance and determination embodied by sisu.

In an excellent article on the concept of sisu, Dr. Tuomas Tepora states that a person with sisu calmly but sturdily navigates him or herself in the midst of life’s difficulties and should these difficulties are overcome, he or she takes the victory without making too much noise about it, but should one fail, things simply go on as usual. As such, according to Dr. Tepora, sisu, not only represents heroism under pressure, but also composure in the midst of joyful celebrations. Making it something akin to the famous couplet in Rudyard Kipling’s poem "If".

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same...

To learn about the history of sisu, its fundamental qualities and whether too much sisu can be harmful, I highly recommend reading the Psychology Today blog post Sisu: The Finnish Secret of Inner Strength and Resilience by personality and cross-cultural psychologist, Anu Realo Ph.D.

Sisu (The Film)

Sisu film poster

I imagine like many other people, I first came across the concept of sisu following the release of the film carrying its name. As enjoyable as it is outrageously violent, here's the description of the film that accompanied the official trailer. 

During the last desperate days of WWII, a solitary prospector (Jorma Tommila) crosses paths with Nazis on a scorched-earth retreat in northern Finland. When the Nazis steal his gold, they quickly discover that they have just tangled with no ordinary miner. While there is no direct translation for the Finnish word "sisu", this legendary ex-commando will embody what sisu means: a white-knuckled form of courage and unimaginable determination in the face of overwhelming odds. And no matter what the Nazis throw at him, the one-man death squad will go to outrageous lengths to get his gold back -- even if it means killing every last Nazi in his path.

And here's one of many great quotes from the film: 

This is not about who is the strongest, this is about not giving up, we have a word for that in Finland.

Obviously as can be seen from above, there is more to sisu than the white-knuckled grit and determination on view throughout the film; however, there is no doubt that this fascinating concept is now much more widely known.

A Note To Psychology Students

Very little systematic research has been conducted into sisu, making it a great topic for an exploratory research project or final year thesis/dissertation. For students interested in pursuing this further, a perfect place to start would be the Sisu Scale, which was developed in the hope that it may provide a valuable addition to research on mental fortitude, resilience and their consequences for well-being. You can learn more about the Sisu Scale via the following link.

A measure for assessment of beneficial and harmful fortitude: development and initial validation of the Sisu Scale

About The Author

David Webb is the owner, writer and host of three websites built around his teaching and research interests; including All-About-Psychology.Com which receives over a million visits a year.

A passionate promoter of psychology through social media, over 850,000 people follow his psychology Facebook page and he is featured on the British Psychological Society list of the 100 most followed psychologists and neuroscientists on Twitter.

A bestselling author, his published work includes: The Psychology Student Guide - The Incredibly Interesting Psychology Book and, On This Day in Psychology.

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